“The Agency Maid” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)
Original: Japanese (つばくろ会からまいりました), 2014
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017
Synopsis: An elderly man’s wife is in the hospital with a poor prognosis, and the only thing he can think about is his inconvenience: Neither can he do housekeeping nor feed himself properly. After complaining to his bedridden wife, sprightly little Maki arrives unannounced at his doorstep and eagerly does what he cannot. He continues to visit his wife but enjoys the evenings where Maki waits on him. One night, he encourages her to have some wine after which she falls asleep in his house, the idea a guilty pleasure for him; however, the next morning, he finds her gone, so he calls the agency that must have sent her.
Analysis: Nowadays, many scoff at stereotypical gender roles: the muscled jock with an inflated ego, the prissy princess with caked-on make-up, the emotionally distant workaholic father, the overweight helicopter mom, etc. The latter two also fit their spousal roles as husband and wife. In the classic idea of a husband and wife, it’s the man who works tirelessly to provide for the family while the woman toils away at home to maintain the ideals for the family: clean house, well-fed members, balanced budget, scheduled appointments, etc. We now scoff at those stereotypes, but two generations ago, those were the reality, the expectations.
The “dedicated wife” subsume ideals of love, attention, loyalty, and dedication… but it really borderlines of subservience. This would be the picturesque housewife of the 1950s in both America and Japan. Yet when both spouses fulfill their roles, the “dedicated wife” will maintain her above qualities “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death”. As adultery has been common–almost institutionalized–for Japanese men for decades, this dedication is often one-sided.
The man in “The Agency Maid” doesn’t seem too concerned for his bedridden wife at the hospital, instead, he’s entertained by the presence of the young maid. Though he visits his wife–superficial dedication–it’s his ideal thoughts at home that give him away… meanwhile, his wife looks after him in her own way.
Review: Tsutsui shows here another side of himself as an author: the sentimentalist. Yes, he does magical realism, satire, science fiction, etc–often a mixture–but here we see a soft story about a husband-wife relationship. It certainly touches on spousal role assignments but it’s an interesting portrayal that challenges our modern progressive thinking of gender roles, spousal roles, and our possibly floundering ideas of dedication. Though I feel that the conclusion can be foreseen, it neatly ties up what he was presenting.